Thinking Out Loud: Questions for Clay’s Ark and Genetics

While reading Octavia Butler’s “Clay’s Ark,” I couldn’t help but think of how Butler hints at some type of genetic engineering in her text. My mind was constantly going back in forth between Keira’s cancer, acute myeloblastic leukemia (460), and the epidemic that Eli brought down to Earth (480). It appears that this epidemic heightens the senses of humans and allows the human body to mend itself from most damage it comes across. Keira’s cancer has the opposite effect. Her body is slowly deteriorating and there has been no luck in curing her body from the cancer. From what I can see here, Butler has created a group of humans that have fallen to an epidemic, and a young girl with cancer. The question now becomes: Why did Butler create the circumstances she did for her characters? What does one character have that the does not? What fills in the gap between Keira and the people who have the epidemic?

Eli acknowledges that this epidemic is horrible. But Butler creates the people who have this epidemic to be indestructible. This makes me curious as to what Butler is saying about the human body. Is this an attempt at critiquing the way the human body works through changing their genetics? The people with the epidemic are visually ill looking and appear to have no strength at all, but this is not the case. These people have a more complex set of senses than any human without the epidemic. Eli further acknowledges that his improved senses came at a cost: “He had been a prisoner within his own skull, cut off from conscious control of his body” (480). What Eli expresses here is the loss of his ability to control his body. The epidemic has full control of the human host. Humans with the epidemic no longer have their own sense of agency. Their survival depends on feeding the organism that is running through their system. I suppose this can be then connected to Kiera in a way that she also has no control of the cancer that is growing inside of her. Her circumstances and symptoms are different, but she has no control of the cancer. Perhaps what is being said here is that if genetic engineering practices get too out of hand, scientists will no longer be in control. What will be in control are the mutations that are unnaturally produced.

Blake (Kiera’s father) happens to be a doctor. This doctor figure got me thinking about understanding the circumstances in which genetic engineering can be an option in Butler’s fiction. As a father, Blake wants to get rid of the cancer that is overtaking Kiera’s body and as a doctor, he wants to find out what this organism is inside of Eli. Blake discovers the following about the organism: “According to the computer, they were more complete, independent organisms…These were more complex organisms that had sought out higher game than bacteria and managed to combine without killing it” (497). Through my understanding, the epidemic is an improvement on the human body insofar that physically, it can enhance the human body’s structure for a more perfect awareness of its senses. Somehow this epidemic has been exposed to the human body as a way of self-improvement. However, Butler creates obstacles throughout her text by having these organisms become independent living things inside their host. These obstacles are problems that the improved bodies must learn to cope with in order to survive these biological and chemical changes. These challenges are expressed through moral obstacles. Because this epidemic leaves the human incapable of controlling itself, more questions are proposed: Are the people with the epidemic still human? What makes a person human? Is an entirely new species being created if the people with the epidemic can no longer live up to human moral codes? A quick example of manipulating this epidemic into a genetic mutation is the breeding of children to already have this epidemic in their system. Butler shows this moral obstacle through the character Jacob. He is not looked at as a human and is given controversial spotlight because he is a reproduction of the epidemic; an epidemic that should be stopped. We see Jacob’s character develop as Butler continues on her quest for these two questions: What are the moral boundaries for this epidemic? How far can human morals expand to encompass people with this epidemic, if at all?

I suppose what I am trying to get at is that Butler brings up the issue of genetic engineering by creating a character like Jacob (and plenty of other moral issues pertaining to the nature of humans). In a strange way, the science behind Butler’s epidemic really grabbed my attention. The question of genetic engineering always perplexes me; I’m curious to see how authors decide to play with this concept. It’s then fun to piece the author’s story together through their versions of pros and cons to the situation they create.

To conclude my rant on this topic, let me suggest a (hefty) nonfiction piece for anyone that is interested about genetics in literature: “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I’m still making my way through this text but  Mukherjee gives a comprehensive explanation for the gene and how it affects the individual through his own personal perspective, research and knowledge.

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